Just Sit Down And Write


As an avid reader of books and tips on writing, I’ve always hoped to find the secret formula to make me good at writing through other writers’ words. By sharing the best tips I’ve found so far, I hope to internalise them for good. If I can help others in the process, all the better! I can’t fit all the collected material into one post and I’ll keep reading and learning over time. So here is the first in my series on writing.

Part 1 – Getting Started

The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair- Mary Heaton Vorse

1. Just sit down and write

It’s so simple, really: to get good at writing, you have to write. A lot.

I started writing at 27. I thought about words almost everyday before that but never actually sat down at my desk and wrote. I always found a reason not to: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough ideas, and most of all, not enough confidence. I wrote short stories, critics, blogposts, even entire novels in my head but never mustered enough courage to face what it would look like on paper.

Then the call of writing became too strong. Ideas were jostling in my head- the only way to shut their voices was to write. I started in English, my second language, because words came more easily  and put less pressure on my shoulders than French words. If my prose wasn’t good, I could always blame it on my English. If it was good, I would get double the credit for writing in a second language.

Today, almost 3 years after I started writing, the only thing I regret is to have waited so long to begin. In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell breaks down a pattern explaining how the best athletes, computer nerds, and musicians have mastered their art. They’ve practiced it for about ten thousand hours. Better get started on those damn ten thousand hours right away!

2. First drafts are shitty

In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, one of my favorite books on writing, there is a section called: “Shitty First Drafts”:

All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.

(…)

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.

Reading Ann Lamott’s words on drafts liberated me. Appalling first drafts had kept me from writing for so long. I would write a few lines, read them, realise how bad they were and think I’d better give-up. But if you see first drafts as a mandatory phase you have to go through to acces the good stuff, suddenly it’s not that scary anymore to sit down and write. You know from the start that it’ll be terrible, just like the best writers’ first drafts, and that’s okay.

The other liberating direction Ann Lamott gave me was to just pour it all out. Turn off the well-trained, critical, judgemental voices in your head and write as much as possible. Focus on quantity, not quality. You’ll focus on quality again with the editing process. John Steinbeck said the same thing in his Six Tips On Writing:

Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.

Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Write for one person

As soon as you start thinking about your audience, or what your mum will think of your scribbles, you are going farther from your own voice and from the message you’re trying to communicate in your writing. Kurt Vonnegut said it best in his 8 tips on how to write a great story:

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Moreover, the will to share your feelings with a friend, rant against your boss, help an imaginary person, impress your dad or whoever, can provide the necessary fuel you need to keep writing. The result doesn’t matter- maybe that person you had in mind will never read your words. What matters is that you wrote something. I’ve always written with someone in mind; It’s not always the same person. So pick someone- be it a friend, a deceased loved one, a lover, or your cat.

4. Don’t wait for inspiration

I started writing only after inspiration struck. An obsessive idea, story, or feeling dragged me to my desk and wouldn’t let me rest until I had written it down. Unfortunately, inspiration doesn’t boil over in my head all the time. Sometimes, days, weeks, months even go by without any storm of ideas, clouds of emotions, or shining stories coming up. I used to wait for them to write. But I quickly realised that waiting for inspiration meant writing rarely. I wanted to write every day. In The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life,  Twyla Tharp gives myriad tips on how to turn creation into a habit:

There’s a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub up against each other.

Twyla Tharp insists on establishing rituals and fostering agreeable work environments to make sure you practice as often as possible:

It’s vital to establish some rituals–automatic but decisive patterns of behavior–at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.

(…)

Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming. All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter into them, they compel you to get started.

.

Those four tips on writing are my most precious ones because they kick my butt into the seat of my chair until I start writing. They were all big ‘Aha’ moments and endless sources of motivation. Next week, I’ll share more good resources about the editing process, the importance of good verbs, and finding a writing partner.

What are your favourite books on writing? Do you have any other useful writing tips that I could add to my next collections?

Part 2 – Rewriting and Editing

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40 thoughts on “Just Sit Down And Write

  1. Pingback: The Risks Of Writing « Trying to be Conscious

  2. Pingback: First Draft Ponderings | ahmrita natural mental health

  3. Such good advice Cecile! The “writing for just one person” tip is such a good one which I will be taking to heart, especially when it comes to blogging. I always write in one go – then put it away – and come back to it after doing something completely different. The piece is always hanging in the back of my mind, but a fresh pair of eyes – even if they are only your own – always helps. Posts like these are such great inspiration, many thanks.

  4. Très intéressant ce post! C’est amusant car même si mon blog n’est en rien littéraire (je “n’écris” pas, je raconte), je ressens tout de même cette espèce de “peur” avant d’écrire un post, car j’ai l’impression que je n’arriverai pas à raconter exactement ce que je veux…Même si c’est assez factuel!

    En tout cas, je trouve que tu t’en sors déjà extrêmement bien…J’adore déjà te lire, alors une fois que tu auras des milliers d’heures d’écriture derrière toi…Je n’ose imaginer! :)

    Laurène, Carnetdescapades.com

    • Raconter, écrire, c’est un peu la même chose au final, non? Quoi qu’il en soit, il est toujours difficile de se lancer. En tous les cas, je trouve ton blog de mieux en mieux à chaque nouvelle visite!

      Mille mercis pour tes compliments, ça fait super plaisir :-)

      • Oui, bien sûr c’est un peu pareil, mais ce que je veux dire c’est que ce que j’écris n’est pas franchement littéraire (à l’inverse d’un blog comme le tien par exemple). ;-)

        Je suis contente si tu le trouves de mieux en mieux, cela fait plaisir car j’y passe pas mal de temps en ce moment…C’est un peu addictif! ;-)

        • Mon blog, littéraire?! Merci pour le compliment :-)
          Oui arranger un blog et tout ce qui tourne autour tourne vite à l’obsession. Parfois j’ai besoin de faire une pause de quelque jours pour prendre du recul et renouveler mon inspiration. Ca fait du bien aussi!

  5. Pingback: Just Sit Down And Write (2) | Trying to be Conscious

  6. Well said. When I write a script, the first draft is painfully bad and lacking in jokes but I have to force my way through without looking back.

    Here’s a writing tip: alcohol has been shown in studies to increase creativity. When I’m on the stage where I’m writing in the jokes, I’ll have a glass or two of wine first. I invariably get more creative jokes. Then I’ll go through and organize and edit them the next day.

    PS You write really well in English.

    • Thank you, Jill :-)
      Good point about the jokes. I rarely manage to insert humour in a first draft and really have to force myself to insert jokes, when I do at all. Humour is even harder and scarier than writing!

      Drinking as a way to boost creativity? Hmmm, it certainly works for me too but i don’t want to be relying on alcohol to be creative so I only resort to it in the most desperate cases :-)

      • I am trying not to sound ignorant but… I was under the impression that the French drank wine pretty much everyday anyway.

        [Delayed response due to all wordpress mail going to spam. I’m also behind because I lost power in the storm. I need to catch up because I miss you.]

        • Hum… It’s true that a lot of French people drink at least one glass of wine/ day. It’s to maintain good health though!
          Glad you’re still alive after the storm! And that you got the power back… I need to catch up with your blog as well. I never check google + so my attempt to follow you on there failed :(

          • Haha well as long as you’re maintaining health, why not get some creativity out of it? I guess you don’t want to get dependent and end up like Hemmingway.

            Thanks :) I know, I need to migrate to wordpress like all the cool kids, right?

  7. Great post, Cécile! There really is so much writing advice out there, and the points you touched on here are really great, useful ones. The first step is to get your butt in a chair and keep it there long enough to write a shitty first draft. Unfortunately, that’s the part that many people can’t get past. I’m convinced someone could make a lot of money by babysitting writers until they finished a first draft and charging them $ for it. By the time the ideas are out, you’re usually excited enough to keep exploring them.

    Besides reading to get unstuck, I’d also recommend doing a task like washing dishes, cleaning, sorting something, or driving. These kinds of repetitive tasks use a different part of the brain and many people (myself included) get some of their best ideas this way.

    A few other good books are “On Writing” by Stephen King (a mix of memoir and writing advice), “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg, and there’s a also book of Hemingway’s collected advice called “Ernest Hemingway on Writing”–he had some incredibly useful things to say about the writing process, even though he claimed it was bad luck to talk about it. “The Creative Habit” and “Bird by Bird” are two of my faves. I pull out the former on a regular basis and always find new ideas and inspiration. I love Twyla’s no nonsense approach–it’s exactly what creative people need to stay grounded.

    • Rian, you’d be a successful business woman! I could certainly use a “first draft babysitter” and I’m convinced some writers would pay good money for that service :)

      I also get great ideas away from my computer and doing repetitive tasks always makes for an efficient break. Thanks for reminding me that, I might add it somewhere in my next writing tips collection.

      Thanks for the books recommendation, too. I discovered The Creative Habit thanks to your blog and I often get back to it as well so I’ll be sure to check out the others. I’m quite excited about Hemingway’s book actually!

  8. Super article! Voici les quatre choses qui m’aident à écrire:

    – Dormir
    Si je suis fatiguée, rien de bon ne sort de ma tête. Par contre, les idées fusent généralement au réveil et lorsque je suis reposée

    – Lire, lire, lire
    Mais peu de livres sur l’écriture en soi – les seuls que je connais viennent de toi ;-) J’ai parfois l’impression qu’ils “m’imposent”, même inconsciemment, un certain schéma qui bride ensuite le flot naturel de mes idées. Et que je me retrouve coincée dans la thèse-antithèse-synthèse ;-) Par contre, me plonger dans des livres et des blogs sur tout et n’importe quoi m’aide à absorber les jolies tounures de phrase (ou à voir ce qui ne marche pas) et fonctionne comme une vraie source d’inspiration

    – Toujours avoir de quoi écrire sous la main
    Parfois, les idées me viennent au moment le plus inopportun et si je ne peux pas les noter tout de suite, j’oublie! Du coup, je ne me balade jamais sans un cahier et un stylo. Et bonus, ça résoud souvent le problème de la page blanche. Avec une base sur laquelle commencer, il est plus facile de continuer…

    – Parler de projets d’écriture avec des amies
    A chaque fois, j’en ressors ultra-motivée :-)

    • Oui tu as raison il faut faire attention avec les livres sur l’écriture de pas perdre son propre style à force d’en lire… Ceci dit, les bons livres sur l’écriture m’inspirent toujours énormément. Et les autres livres et articles de journaux et blogs bien écrits aussi d’ailleurs.

      Dormir, avoir toujours quelque chose sous la main: bien sûr! A rajouter dans mes futurs posts peut-être, merci de m’avoir rappelé ces principes de bases.

      Et parler de projets d’écriture avec des amies, pour moi aussi ça marche à chaque fois! C’est super de trouver des personnes qui partagent la même passion :-)

  9. I really like the one about writing for only one person. That just sounds so much more manageable than trying to please everyone. To think of one person and think, ok, I’m going to write something that this person will love. Yup. Definitely going to try that.

  10. Excellent ideas and thoughts on the matter. I would add that Ray Bradbury would keep a notebook in which he wrote anything he thought of all the time. Then, when he was stuck for a short story idea, he pulled out the list and started.
    Scott

  11. I think Douglas Adams once said in an interview that his method of inspiration was “I tell myself I can’t have a cup of tea until I write something.” (For the record, I’ve never been so desperate/stuck that I’d threaten to withhold caffeine from myself…)
    If I want to write something then I’ll try to do reading first. To squeeze fiction out of myself I’ll devour lots of library books. To create a personal statement I’ll read online examples. I then get ideas about what I like/dislike and often find random inspiration in the process (“I know – I’ll include bold font headers!”).
    Oh, and I drink tea. Lots of tea.

    • Douglas Adams is more disciplined than we are apparently ;-)
      I’ve never been so strict with myself. The closest I get is not allowing myself to read anything on the internet before writing something of my own.

      At the same time, I also find inspiration in reading but more on a general level- I stumble upon something and get an idea out of it. I try to avoid reading similar blogposts before writing my own though because I tend to imprint words a lot and then lose track of what I wanted to say.

      And lots of tea, and coffee, of course!

    • That’s funny. I can’t withhold tea from myself either. I think my method is to say to myself “Just try it. If we’re miserable in half an hour we can renegotiate.” Usually once I get started I have no problem keeping it up.

  12. When I was writing my thesis I remember reading a chapter in a book about writing — sorry, can’t remember the name of the book :-( I just remember that the author talked about the first draft and getting all your thoughts on paper, and then he said you “polish the diamond.” You keep taking out whatever doesn’t make sense and re-writing it until it’s polished. It doesn’t matter what the first draft is like. Just get your thoughts on paper! Then, you can smooth it out.

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